Beware the Dreaded Passive Voice

22, Apr 2013 by Rachel Berens-VanHeest in Featured,Grammar,Writing Craft       2 Comment

If you’ve ever taken any type of writing class or workshop, or even had someone critique your writing, you may have heard about a thing called passive voice.

And if you’ve heard of it, you probably know that most people think it makes writing weak. But what is it exactly? How can you find it in your writing? And, most importantly, how can you fix it?

What it is: Passive voice puts the emphasis on the thing that is receiving the action rather than emphasizing who or what is doing the action.

EXAMPLE: The ball was thrown to Billy by Joe.

The thing receiving the action is “the ball,” and the person doing the action is “Joe.” But the way this sentence is written, it makes it seem as if the ball is acting, not Joe.

How to find it: Looking at the example above, you can see both of the two major indicators of passive voice:

·         It uses one of the “to be” verbs – is, are, was, were (In this case, “was.”)

·         It includes the phrase “by ________” (In this case, “by Joe.”)

If you know (or learn!) that you often use passive voice, one way to find it in your writing is by using the Find/Replace tool in Word. Simply search for any (or all) of the “to be” verbs and the word “by.” (If you use the Replace tool, you can even set it up to highlight these words throughout your document, giving you a very clear way of identifying them!)

How to fix it: Fixing passive voice is the trickiest part. Depending on your writing style, you might change a passive sentence one way, whereas I might change it a different way. That doesn’t mean that either of us is wrong. It just makes it hard to explain THE RIGHT WAY to fix passive voice, since there isn’t one!

Here’s an example to get you thinking:

EXAMPLE: The decision that was reached by the group was to reschedule the meeting.

Check for a “to be” verb (“was”) and the phrase “_____” (“by the group”). Yep, definitely passive.

Next, identify the real subject of the sentence. In this case, it’s “the group.” At the moment, the verb is “reached.” So let’s start there and put this into a more traditional – and active – sentence structure: noun followed by verb.

IMPROVED EXAMPLE: The group reached the decision to reschedule the meeting.

That’s definitely better. We eliminated the “to be” verb and the “by_____” phrase and made it an active sentence. But it still meanders a bit. Let’s try to tighten it up even further.

EVEN BETTER EXAMPLE: The group decided to reschedule the meeting.

Now the subject and verb are clear, the sentence is short and to the point, and it’s much easier to read and understand.

A final caveat: Passive voice is not always bad. Sometimes, clarity and readability trump active voice. And don’t freak out too much about those “to be” verbs. Think about how people speak. Lots of “was,” “is,” “are,” and “were,” right? If you want a realistic style, you’ll have to use these verbs in your work. Just be sure you aren’t overusing them.

Play around with your passive sentences and see what feels right for you – be careful not to sacrifice your voice simply to avoid using “was” a couple of times.

 [author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Rachel is a full-on, hardcore grammar freak. Her favorite punctuation marks are parentheses, em dashes and ellipses. She still loves adverbs, but is trying to wean herself off them. And she truly believes that it’s okay to split an infinitive. In addition to her grammar obsession, Rachel writes light contemporary romance – occasionally with a paranormal twist – and is published in short fiction. Rachel also works as a freelance proofreader and copy editor. Learn more at [/author_info] [/author]

2 thoughts on “Beware the Dreaded Passive Voice”

  1. Lisa M. Scuderi-Burkimsher says:

    Passive voice can be dull and sometimes confusing. What if the sentence below was corrected to read as follows:

    Joe threw the ball to Billy. Is this a better sentence?

    Your Senence Example of Passive Voice: The ball was thrown to Billy by Joe.

  2. Rachel says:

    Hi Lisa!
    Yes, your corrected version is much better. As I mentioned, it’s possible to adjust sentences in a number of ways, so just find what works for you! Thanks for commenting!

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